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Religious Groups in Florida Balk at No-Child Tutoring

Ohanian Comment: I'm always impressed when people turn down money for fear of compromising their principles. It is such rare behavior.

Florida is having trouble getting religious groups to participate in President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, despite reopening the application process this year in hopes of attracting more faith-based organizations as tutors.

Only three of the 108 private and public groups approved in Florida to take tax dollars in exchange for tutoring underachieving students are religious, despite the extra effort to get them. None is in Palm Beach County.

Nationally, about 9 percent of the 1,046 providers are faith-based.

POPULAR PAGES Giving tax dollars to religious groups for tutoring is a major component of the federal education reform act, which seeks to have all students performing on grade level by 2014.

According to a U.S. Department of Education news release, President Bush wants to be a "supporter, enabler, catalyst and collaborator with faith-based and community organizations" in providing tutoring for students.

But some religious groups in Florida say they don't want the government's dime.

To offer tutoring, faith-based groups must promise to provide only a secular education program and are banned from any religious instruction. Also, the groups are in legal limbo over whether they will continue to receive tax dollars under the state's school voucher programs. Two courts have ruled the practice unconstitutional; the Florida Supreme Court is next to hear the case.

In that environment, private religious schools are hesitant to take any more public money.

Four county schools affected

"I think the No. 1 concern from a faith-based perspective is whether your religious mission will be compromised," said Larry Keough, associate for education for the Florida Catholic Conference. "Our voucher experiences in Florida have caused some apprehension about delving into these types of relationships and getting involved in programs under No Child Left Behind."

This is the first year Florida must offer private tutoring to students in schools that did not meet standards under No Child Left Behind.

It's the second phase in a punitive cycle that began last year when thousands of students in 48 schools including five in Palm Beach County were given the opportunity to choose better-rated public schools if theirs did not make adequate yearly academic progress.

Four Palm Beach County schools must offer tutoring this year to students who are poor and underachieving: Lincoln and West Riviera elementaries, Pahokee/Middle Senior High School and Glades Central High School. About 1,870 Palm Beach County students are eligible for the tutoring, which is free to parents but will cost the school district an estimated $2.4 million.

No schools in Martin or St. Lucie counties are required to offer tutoring this year.

The money comes from schools' Title I federal dollars for poor students. With so few religious groups signing up, most providers in Florida are private companies, including Sylvan Educational Systems and Kaplan K12 Learning Services.

About 78 percent of the tutoring groups are private corporations. Twenty-two percent are from out of state.

John Porter, director of the center for faith-based and community initiatives for the U.S. Department of Education, said he is unconcerned about the lack of religious tutoring groups in Florida.

"Our goal is to provide academic services to children who need it, and faith-based organizations are just one pool of talent we can draw from to meet that need," Porter said. "I don't know exactly what is happening in Florida. The need hasn't been as great there and that may be the reason why the number of providers is low."

Legal resolution sought

Next year the pool of eligible students could grow to as many as 50,000 in Palm Beach County alone if schools targeted for the first time under No Child Left Behind don't show improvement.

But religious leaders say they aren't likely to increase their participation until the voucher issue is settled.

Although the current court case involves only one form of Florida's three voucher programs, Keough said a ruling would set a precedent allowing other challenges to the remaining programs or any other public money going to religious groups.

"The worst-case scenario for us would be for faith-based providers to participate in programs that eventually become unconstitutional," Keough said. "The court battle is a big concern to us."

— Kimberly Miller
Palm Beach Post


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